Home » Northeast high schools meet at Lime Rock for Electrathon Challenge

Northeast high schools meet at Lime Rock for Electrathon Challenge

LIME ROCK — The Connecticut Electrathon Challenge on May 7 at Lime Rock Park might just have offered a glimpse into the future of automotive design. And it’s a future that’s remarkably quiet.

The tiny electric cars competing in Friday’s race glided silently around the track. Silently, and slowly. The top speed for the day was under 35 miles per hour. Still, 35 miles per hour in a one-man vehicle that sits about 5 inches above the surface of the road probably feels fast enough.

The cars are designed by teams of students from high schools all along the East Coast. On Friday there was even a team from Canada, showing off an innovative vehicle with engines in each of the three tire hubs: The George Brown College team, from Ontario, Canada, won the engineering award — but only completed 20 laps around the track.

The top teams in this contest are the ones that complete the most laps. This time around, as is often the case, the victors hailed from Nathan Hale-Ray High School in East Haddam (they also won the Electrathon Challenge last October). This isn’t a giant school with a fat budget and an abundance of students to choose from for its team; Nathan Hale-Ray has a population of only about 400 students. But the team (and coach/teacher Bruce Freeman) is extremely dedicated and as creative about raising funds as about designing and racing electric cars. Freeman said that part of the program for his students is learning how to go to local businesses and make a compelling pitch for them to sponsor the team.

Make no mistake about it, the fundraising is (as with so many things in life) crucial. Mike Grella, who organizes two Connecticut Electrathon Challenges each year (in spring and fall, at Lime Rock Park), estimated that each electric car costs about $2,000 to build.

One team, from Newburgh Free Academy in New York state, had a solar-powered vehicle. Its lines and materials were simple; it looked a bit like a Boy Scouts Pinewood Derby car designed for human drivers.

The team members said they had just built their vehicle a day or two before Friday’s competition. But for this team, the race wasn’t about the machine itself. It was about the 60 watts of solar panels arrayed across the snout of the car.

Nafiz Kahn, one member of the team, estimated that the panels had set them back about $500. But it was a drop in the bucket compared to what they spend on their real wheels, an actual car that competes in cross-country solar-power races.

“We have $25,000 worth of panels on our solar car,†he said.

In a one-hour race, the team members confessed, solar panels don’t really make sense; they’re really at their best when used in a trip that goes from, say, Texas to Newburgh (like the  cross-country solar race the team had recently completed).

Newburgh came in first in its category on Friday — completing 27 laps. But it was the only car in its category (solar).

The other categories were classic (cars with metal frames), composite, novice and college (George Brown College was the only entry).

In all, 33 teams competed this time, “the largest field of vehicles thus far,†Grella said. The field was also literally larger this time around: an extra half-mile was added to the course. This is not, of course, the full mile-and-a-half course that actual race cars travel along at Lime Rock Park (in fact, the high-powered racers with their throaty engines were actually working out on the larger track, creating an interesting contrast with the diminutive electric cars, which whir rather than roar). It’s a smaller back track at the sprawling facility, one that was set up for a .7-mile race this time instead of the .2 miles it had been for previous Electrathon challenges.

The Nathan Hale-Ray champs took their tiny battery and diminutive vehicle around the course 54 times, the top score for both the composite category and the day.  To see how other teams did, go online to tcextra.com. To find out more about the Connecticut Electrathon, contact Grella at ths_solar_team@yahoo.com or go online to ctelectrathon.org.

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